Within the month, or later (no one seems to know for sure), the USDA will announce its proposed nutritional standards for foods that children can buy outside of their school cafeterias. Collectively known as “competitive foods” (since they “compete” with the school cafeteria), these are foods bought in vending machines, à la carte and in student stores. This will be the first time there are national standards governing these foods, as before there have only been suggested guidelines, such asthose recommended by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation.
Students consume up to 50 percent of their day’s worth of food at school, so the Obama administration says it wants to ensure that what students eat contributes to good health, reports the New York Times, who first covered news of the impending guidelines. This makes sense to us just from a consistency standpoint. In other words, if we focus on serving healthful meals to children via our school cafeterias, we should also focus on serving healthful products outside of those four walls. This is clearly a more complex issue that goes outside of the school, but schools are a great place to start.
School nutrition has been a contentious issue. The advocates of reform have included vocal leaders such as Chef Ann Cooper – the “Renegade Lunch Lady” – Michelle Obama and Jamie Oliver; detractors have often included food and beverage industry lobbyists. There have been victories for both sides of the issue, depending on your perspective. Last year, lobbyists for the food and beverage industries launched a campaign thatpersuaded Congress to rescind some of the rules that the Obama administration wanted to place on school lunches, as part of its nationwide campaign to lessen the causes of childhood obesity. The change that got the most publicity was the now infamous pizza vegetable scandal. Ok, it really wasn’t a scandal. But if you Google search “tomato sauce is a vegetable serving” you get about 15,700,000 results. In reality, Congress allowed two tablespoons of tomato sauce to be considered a vegetable, as we reported earlier. In my opinion, the decision didn’t warrant so much hype. Tomato sauce isn’t inherently “bad.” In fact, it’s quite good for you (granted, if you can get it from a can with BPA-free lining, or make it yourself). And, if it’s on a pizza that has 100% whole-wheat crust and organic cheese (or “cheese” – I’m vegan and am all about cashew “cheese”), it’s really a wholesome meal. But I digress…
The New York Times reports that advocates for the new vending machine restrictions expect the food and beverage industry to stomp its feet much like it did with the school lunch guidelines and create another tomato sauce rule; especially, since, as the Times quotes, according to a study by the National Academy of Sciences, “about $2.3 billion worth of snack foods and beverages are sold annually in schools nationwide.” I don’t think there has to be as much pushback though. The natural products industry is growing exponentially, and, as we know here at HUMAN, we can indeed have vending machines with better-for-you options, including fresh fruit and items sourced locally (for example, we vend a mom-and-daughter duo’s granola, called Nuts About Granola, in York, PA).
Is America ready for uniform vending standings in schools? Yes, according to the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Food Project’s recent survey, which found that eighty percent of American voters favored national standards that would limit calories, fat, and sodium in snack and à la carte foods sold in U.S. schools and encourage the consumption of fruits, vegetables and low fat dairy items.
And, while school lunches have been taking a lot of heat lately (just say the words, “pink slime” and you’ll hear shrieks), healthy vending machines have also been making national headlines, but their reception has been predominantly positive. Most see healthy vending machines as a healthful compromise – a way to keep vending machines, which often provide ancillary income to cash-strapped schools, while also providing healthful options that parents would choose for their own kids.
Providing access to fruits and vegetables in vending machines may have more of an impact than many realize. In a recent study published in the journal, Public Health Nutrition found that participants who agreed that they had “convenient access to quality” produce were more than twice as likely to eat the FDA-recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables, compared to those who said they did not have such access. Granted, the study included adult participants, rather than children, but it’s still worth noting! The study also found that cost was not a hindrance to product consumption, rather convenience – and as Mark Bittman has surmised, time to cook, and kitchen know-how – is.
We’ll keep you posted when the USDA releases its proposed guidelines. ‘Til then, eat well and prosper!